DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — A vast new airport in the Qatari capital opened for business following years of delays Wednesday as the natural-gas rich Gulf nation works to transform itself into a major aviation hub and prepares to host one of sporting’s biggest events.
A ceremonial Qatar Airways flight landed and was welcomed by aviation’s traditional salute of fire engines spraying water overhead to mark the official opening of Hamad International Airport, which shares its name with the Qatari emir who abdicated in favor of his son last year.
It is part of a multibillion-dollar building boom that is transforming the skyline of the Qatari capital, Doha, as it prepares to host soccer’s World Cup in 2022.
Abdul Aziz Mohammad al-Noaimi, who chairs the airport steering committee, hailed the new complex as “a source of pride and joy” for all Qataris. He said it can accommodate 30 million passengers annually for now, with plans for further expansion slated over the next several years.
“It will deliver a memorable experience to all passengers that will travel through its gates, an experience that reflects Qatar’s status and importance on the world travel and tourism map,” he said.
Like the nearby United Arab Emirates, Qatar has invested heavily in its aviation sector in recent years. It has emerged as a major transit center for flights from around the world, competing at times uncomfortably with traditional European and Asian hubs for lucrative long-haul travelers’ dollars.
The new airport is only partially operational for now, with ten mainly discount and South Asian airlines operating flights during an initial low-key opening period.
Flag carrier Qatar Airways, its main Gulf rivals Emirates and Etihad Airways, and other international carriers such as Lufthansa and United Airlines are expected to move to the new airport once it’s fully operational on May 27.
Built largely on a patch of land reclaimed from the Persian Gulf alongside the existing Doha airport, the new facility cost at least $15 billion to build. It was initially scheduled for completion in 2009, some five years after construction began.
Its 600,000 square meter (6.5 million square feet) passenger terminal complex is the largest building in the Qatari capital.
A commercial flight operated by Mideast budget carrier FlyDubai was the first to arrive after the Qatari VIPs, landing shortly before noon local time.
Like the airport itself, it was running behind schedule.
Hamad International — originally known as New Doha International Airport — has been dogged by a series of delays stretching back years, including the last-minute cancellation of what would have been its inaugural flight in April 2013.
The new airport has 33 gates where planes pull up directly to the terminal, with nearly twice that many planned for the future.
That is an improvement on the overcrowded existing airport, where passengers still have to be shuttled on buses and climb stairs to board aircraft in brutally hot and muggy summertime heat.
Promised perks at the new complex include more than two dozen art installations, a transit hotel, a swimming pool, a luxury spa and even squash courts. In a nod to the country’s conservative Islamic values, the airport complex includes a prominent mosque just outside the main terminal that can hold 500 worshippers.
The old Doha airport will continue to be used for helicopter flights, military operations and a general aviation collage.